In 1998, Pat Toomey left a career in finance and restaurants to launch a bid for a Congressional seat in Pennsylvania's 15th District, located in Allentown. After winning a surprising victory, he served for six years in the U.S. House of Representatives, earning a lifetime 97 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. In 2004, he challenged incumbent Arlen Specter for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, coming within 17,000 votes out of a million cast in a bitterly fought primary in which he was outspent 4 to 1.
Toomey served as president of the Club for Growth for more than four years starting in 2005 as the organization financed candidates who stood for lower taxes and limited government. Earlier this month, Toomey announced he would challenge Specter again in 2010, setting the stage for what is sure to be one most closely watched primary battles of next year's election cycle. A Rasmussen poll released last week showed Toomey with a 21-point edge over Specter.
On Monday morning, I spoke with Toomey via telephone about the upcoming race, his conservative ideology, and President Obama's job performance.
PK: What made you decide to transition from your successful business career into politics?
Toomey: By the late '90s, when I ran for Congress, I had become pretty well steeped in a lot of free market ideas that I'm still very hopeful about, and believe strongly in, like school choice, free trade, Social Security reform where workers could accumulate personal savings -- a number of specific ideas that I'm convinced will lead to more prosperity and greater well-being on the part of a vast majority of Americans. After the 1994 elections, when Republicans took control of Congress, I thought there was really an opportunity to advance these ideas…
PK: Now we obviously have a much different set of circumstances, with Democrats in total control of Washington. So, what has made you decide to challenge Arlen Specter again?
I think you're right. I think we now have the most liberal elected government in the history of the republic. I think they are very consciously and systematically attempting to take America on a huge lurch to the left, to really remake our society in a fashion similar to a European-style welfare state. They are trying to fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between citizens and our government. And it's frightening to me, and it will have devastating consequences if they're successful, and of course, Arlen Specter has been happy to cooperate actively with this effort. His support for all the bailouts, his support for massive spending, and his support for the Democrats' agenda and defeating the Republican filibuster on the stimulus bill. It's just unconscionable to me that a Republican can be actively facilitating this huge lurch to the left. So I want to run for the Senate, I want to get elected to the Senate, and I'm confident I can. And I want to try and stop this liberal freight train and actually turn the direction around.
PK: Specter, and some other critics of your time at the Club for Growth, have argued that your support for conservative challengers to moderate Republicans in the primaries cost seats for Republicans. They talk, for instance, about the Chafee-Laffey [U.S. Senate race in Rhode Island], which could have decided control of the Senate in 2006. How would you respond to that criticism?
It's an entirely and completely false charge, like most of the charges that Specter makes. Let's take the Lincoln Chafee situation. Bear in mind, what is lost when Lincoln Chafee leaves the Senate? First of all, within a matter of months, he abandoned the Republican Party formally. He's no longer even a Republican. During the presidential campaign, he publicly endorsed Barack Obama instead of John McCain. So what is it we had in the form of Lincoln Chafee? He wasn't a Republican in any meaningful sense of the word. But as for his political prospects, the man was destined to lose that race no matter what. He was in absolutely irrecoverable decline long before we got involved in the race. And take a look at his general election outcome. It wasn't close…
PK: What would you say to Republican primary voters who feel that they agree with you more on the issues, but they wonder, are you going to be electable in a general election? If you're going to lose a general election, would Specter still be preferable to a Democrat? And pointing to Rick Santorum's performance in 2006, could somebody with your conservative views win in a state that has increasingly become Democratic?
Point number one, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that I have a much better chance of winning a general election in Pennsylvania in 2010 than Arlen Specter would. I see no scenario under which Arlen Specter could win the general election, even if he were somehow miraculously to win the primary. And here's why. There is such a breadth and depth of antipathy toward Senator Specter among Republicans generally, and conservatives in particular, that if he were somehow to manage to win the primary, which he would need massive Democratic crossover to do, he will guarantee a conservative third party candidate in the general election -- a Constitution Party candidate or a Libertarian Party candidate. And these kinds of third party candidates in Pennsylvania have a history of breaking into double digits. Against Tom Ridge, third party candidates in gubernatorial races got 11 to 13 percent of the vote. Now Tom Ridge was a moderate, but Tom Ridge was never hated. Arlen Specter is a liberal, and the animosity toward him is so great that I think this third party candidate would easily break 15 points, maybe get into the high teens, and it's not possible for Arlen Specter to win an election when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the electorate, in the form of Republicans and conservatives, is voting for a third party candidate. So, Senator Specter would almost certainly lose a general election.
Now, as far as my own prospects go, the comparison to Rick Santorum is completely meaningless. It's a complete red herring thrown out by the Specter people. Rick Santorum didn't lose in 2006 because he was too conservative, he lost because he was a Republican running in 2006. 2006 was the worst Republican year since 1974. Republicans all across the country and all across the ideological spectrum were losing. Nancy Johnson lost a seat in Connecticut. Charlie Bass lost a seat in New Hampshire. Sue Kelly lost a seat in New York. These are very moderate to liberal Republicans, and they were crushed, because it was a very bad year for Republicans. So, this didn't have anything to do with his ideology.
Senator Specter will argue that I'm too conservative because among other things, I'm pro-life. The only problem with that argument is the Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, is pro-life. He's a pro-life, pro-gun Senator. So how is it that such an impossible position from which to get elected? This is just Senator Specter, who can't defend his own record, desperately trying to find some way to impugn me.
The final point I'll make is look at the Congressional district I represented. I was elected three times to represent the 15th District of Pennsylvania. That's a district in which my predecessor was a Democrat, the Democratic nominee has won the last five presidential elections in that district, and the Democrats outnumber the Republicans. Yet I won that district three times by increasing margins, and I never lost it. So I believe that is very clear evidence that I can attract Democratic support, win a tough general election, and I can do that state-wide as well.
PK: President Obama wants to see himself as this transformational liberal leader who's embarking on a third wave of government expansion following on the New Deal and the Great Society. Republicans clearly are in a very limited position to resist right now. What do you think Republicans can do to resist Obama given that in the next year he's going to try to shove through as much as he can?
First of all, Republicans need to make principled arguments for alternative policies. We've got to be willing to stand up and criticize this massive expansion of government. I think the American people understand intuitively that endless bailouts of failing companies are a bad idea. I think they understand that we got into this mess we're in now, at least in part, because of too much borrowing and spending, and the idea that the government is going to get us out of it by massive and additional borrowing and spending -- that's a pretty dubious proposition. So I think we can easily persuade people of the failures of this policy and to do that we need to have constructive alternatives, and politically and tactically, we need to stop this in the Senate. Part of the reason I'm running is that Senator Specter has demonstrated that we do not have the ability to sustain a filibuster in part because he doesn’t want to. He wants to side with the Democrats and advance this liberal agenda. He's done it already. There's every reason to believe he would do it again. And it's just too important that Republicans stand up in opposition to this socialization of America. And I think we can do it, but we need to have the right people in the Senate -- people who are willing to do it.
PK: Your economic views are well known, both before your time at the Club for Growth and with your work there, so I'd like to get a better sense of your views on foreign policy. Broadly speaking, most conservatives during the Bush administration tended to be supportive of the administration's actions during the War on Terror, and decision to invade Iraq. Whereas some more libertarian Republicans, and certainly those who Ron Paul spoke to, were rooted in the belief that we can't think government is any better at meddling in other people's affairs overseas as it is meddling with the free market at home. They were very critical of the Iraq War, and have argued that our involvement overseas has made us less safe. In terms of that divide among people who may agree with each other about the size of government in domestic issues, where do you see yourself?
Toomey: The vote authorizing the president to use force in Iraq occurred while I was a member of the House and I voted in favor of that authorization. I will tell you it was probably the toughest vote I had to cast while I was there. But I thought then, and I still believe now, that it was probably the right risk to take, understanding that it was a very big risk. And the reason I felt that is I do believe Saddam Hussein was a very grave medium-term threat to the United States. I think he was a force for enormous instability and great and dangerous mischief in the Middle East and beyond. And after Sept. 11, and after we had witnessed and suffered through such a devastating attack, I thought we had to change some of these fundamental circumstances and in getting rid of Saddam Hussein and allowing the Iraqi people to build a democratic society of their own that would be free of that brutal dictator, it struck me as a risk that we ought to take, as difficult as that was. There's plenty of legitimate, very legitimate, criticism of how the war was conducted, especially in the early and middle stages of it. There's plenty of blame about some of the planning and implementation of policies after the initial very successful military efforts. But in the end, the surge then did work, and it's unfortunate that it wasn't deployed far sooner. But it did work. And I am cautiously optimistic that things will turn out okay in Iraq as long as we don't pull out precipitously.
PK: Right now, one of the big debates is over the Bush administration's interrogation program, and it's taken on several different strands. There are those who think it's absolutely morally beyond the pale, there are those who say if you look at the results it got that it did save American lives, and then there's this debate over the legal aspects, and whether there should be some sort of "Truth Commission" to look into what happened and whether we should be prosecuting former Bush administration officials. What is your viewpoint on this issue?
Toomey: I think the current administration is guilty of undermining our national security with what they're doing right now, and it's appalling. First of all, their decision to release these memos I think was a very poor decision. If they were going to do that, they also should have disclosed the kinds of attacks that the interrogations prevented and it's disturbing that they continue to remain unwilling to release that. The idea that we would now go after and criminally prosecute men and women who were following legal advice and doing their jobs to try and protect Americans is absolutely appalling and will have a chilling effect on our ability to secure this country going forward. So I think it's a terrible policy that this administration is threatening.
PK: How would you describe the philosophical difference between your views and the Obama approach to health care? And how do you think Republicans can make the case against the Obama-style approach?
Toomey: The fundamental divide is clearly whether we're going to have privately provided, privately financed health care in this country, or whether we're going to go down the road of having the government take over the process. It's very clear that the Obama administration wants government-controlled health care. That can only lead to government rationing and lower quality of health care. That is a very disturbing direction in my mind. Republicans have generally favored a more market-based approach -- that is my preference. I would like to start by reuniting the role of the patient and the consumer. We've separated those two by relying on third party payer systems. This is one of the fundamental flaws of how we pay for health care in this country. That needs to be addressed. There are a number of ways in which government forces prices higher than they need to be. For health care, one is tolerance of legal abuses, litigation that directly has a huge cost, but indirectly has an even bigger cost by forcing doctors to practice defensive medicine on a scale that is totally inappropriate.
The other thing is mandates on coverage. The various states have all sorts of mandated [benefits] that make insurance more expensive than it would otherwise be. These are the kinds of things we can do that enhance personal freedom and choices by consumers and lower cost at the same time. That's the philosophical and practical direction that I want to head in, and it's the opposite of where the Obama administration wants to go.
I think politically we can win this argument by reminding the American people that when the government runs the show, you're not in control anymore. You're not going to have choices. And we're going to end up having rationing. I don't think many Americans want a Canadian style, or a British style, health care system, and the more they learn about those systems, the more they'll shy away from them.
PK: This week, we're coming up on 100 days of the Obama administration. What grade would you give President Obama?
I would give him a very low grade, because I think he is embarking on a profoundly wrong direction. This massive expansion of government will do much harm. It will make Americans fundamentally dependent on government and make us a weaker rather than stronger country. The spending that he has already approved and that which he is proposing is absolutely unsustainable and can only result in serious economic problems down the road. This international apology tour I thought was appalling, and it was really shocking [for it] to come from an American president. So, I fail to see much to commend in the first 100 days of the Obama administration.
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